You may be wondering what it means for your website to be accessible to everyone according to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards. What does it mean to make the internet accessible to everyone? 

If you do any business via website in the United States, your website is required by the ADA to adhere to certain accessibility standards, meaning that it can be easily used by individuals with disabilities. Website ADA compliance means that not only is your content user-friendly and easy to understand, that it is available via sight, hearing, and/or touch. It also means that your UI (User Interface) is operable and compatible with common assistive equipment. As technologies and platforms evolve, your website needs to evolve with it and remain operable on assistive technologies.

This may sound as though it’s complicated and prohibitively expensive, especially if you have an established website. It doesn’t have to be! As we discuss what ADA compliance for the web means, it will become clear that making your website accessible to all internet users is not only the law, it’s also beneficial to the future of your business, and well worth the investment.

What are assistive technologies?

Braille keyboardMany Americans with disabilities use assistive technologies to surf the internet, so compliance can also mean that your website is easily navigable via these avenues. Examples of these include:

  • JAWS (Job Access With Speech) – This is a computer screen reader program for Microsoft Windows which allows blind and visually impaired users to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or by a refreshable Braille display. Similar programs include COBRA and Hal.
  • Keyboard-Only Navigation – This means that your website is navigable completely by keyboard, without requiring a mouse. This requires your website to make use of focusable elements – your keyboard will only tab through items on the page which have focus, such as links, input fields, and buttons.

None of these assistive technologies are perfect, and for many of them to work properly, the website must be designed in a way which allows maximum accessibility by these tools. 

Is my website required to be ADA compliant by law?

Yes! As of 2020, the internet hosts more than 400 million active websites. According to Title III of the ADA, any of those websites which do business in the United States are legally required to provide equal accessibility to all.

Although it is rare for a personal website to be sued over lack of accessibility, it can be a major concern for a business. Moreover, if you address accessibility concerns, you’re taking steps to ensure that your website is open to everyone, you’re attracting new clientele, and you’re showing your visitors and customers that you care. It may surprise you to learn that according to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 61 million people, or a quarter of the adult American population, live with some kind of disability. This group has an estimated $645 billion in disposable income. That’s simply too large a market segment to ignore!

Another benefit of bringing your website up to ADA accessibility standards is that it improves your search engine performance and rankings. All other things being relatively equal, if your competitor has an accessible website, but you do not, your competition will consistently rank higher than you in search results. In terms of what you can do to achieve higher ranking on SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), optimizing your site for accessibility and speed appears behind only improving your domain authority, having high-quality content, having a broad reach (your high-quality content being linked to by other websites), and utilizing relevant search keywords. Your domain authority – the most important factor in your rankings – is increased by performing these other SEO (Search Engine Optimization) tips! In other words, the more you do to improve your accessibility, the better you’ll rank.

What’s the real likelihood of an ADA-compliance lawsuit?

Lawyers meeting over websiteThe ADA tells us that all public spaces should be accessible to everyone, which includes some digital spaces and those accessible via the internet. You could face a lawsuit if a person with a disability claims that they are unable to access your website. This can result in legal fees, a potential settlement, a potential public relations problem, and the cost of rebuilding your website to be ADA-compliant, not to mention the potential for damage to your company’s reputation.

Where these suits are especially prevalent is when a website’s lack of accessibility has prevented a user from applying for employment, from applying for benefits, from applying to a university or other school, from being able to order goods or services, or from contacting a business, to name a few examples. 

You see, a website is considered an extension of a physical location, such as a shop or a school. This makes your website a place of public accommodation, which subjects it to ADA compliance standards. If your website or digital space is not accessible to everyone, you run the risk of someone filing a lawsuit against your company for discrimination.

According to The Seyfarth ADA Title III News & Insights Blog, which tracks ADA website compliance lawsuits, 751 suits have been filed against website owners since the start of 2015, with 432 in the first half of 2017 alone. The upward trend in just a few short years is staggering – in 2019, 11,053 suits were filed in federal court, an increase of 8.8% over the previous year. According to UsableNet’s 2019 ADA Website and App Accessiblity Lawsuit Report, federally filed ADA suits are now occurring nationally at the rate of one suit for every working hour, with retailers being targeted 76% of the time. Food service comes in as the second most-targeted industry, at 12%.

For the plaintiff in these cases, there is little risk. Many attorneys will even forgo any upfront legal fees, because companies tend to settle these types of cases before they go to court, due to the uncertainty of a favorable outcome. You may think these types of lawsuits are frivolous, but that’s simply not the case with web accessibility. Think of how difficult your day might be made if you were unable to easily access the weather forecast, the bus schedule, make a reservation, buy goods, order services, or easily pay your bills or file your taxes online?

It’s important to note that the majority of ADA lawsuits are legitimate, because plaintiffs cannot sue under the ADA for monetary damages. A plaintiff can only seek reimbursement of their legal fees, as well as remediation of the problem. In other words, they’re not suing to collect a quick buck, they’re suing because they have been legitimately discriminated against by your business! Monetary damages can definitely be sought, however, if you’re sued under other statutes, such as New York State Human Rights Law, or California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which explicitly entitles everyone to full and equal accommodations in all business establishments of any kind, regardless of their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, or disability.

The consequences of such a lawsuit can certainly be detrimental to your brand’s business financially, but they’re also damaging to your brand’s reputation. Customers are using social media to hold businesses accountable. Facing a public lawsuit because you failed to accommodate persons with disabilities can be a public relations disaster! Word travels fast around the internet, and no business wants to be perceived as discriminatory.

What can I do?

If you’re in the designing stages of your website, design with an eye to ADA compliance and accessibility. That way, you won’t potentially be paying to have your site designed twice if this is overlooked!

If you already own a website, you can have it reviewed for ADA compliance standards by a web design firm which specializes in such concerns. It’s important to hire a firm which employs a manual review process in addition to an automated one – many automated ADA compliance detectors and auditors miss key elements, which would prevent you from becoming fully ADA compliant. 

Contact Thrive

Here at Thrive Web Designs, we specialize in ADA website compliance. As we work with clients, either for an audit or to bring their site into full ADA compliance, we leverage both a manual review process and automated tools. Contact us to find out more!